For the Love of Healing

For the Love of Healing

Many couples have interesting stories about how they met: online, through friends, a chance encounter at a party.

For the doctors Birriel (he is T. Javier, MD; she is Lillybeth, MD), the seven-year-married couple’s journey crisscrosses numerous states and several countries.

“We met in 2009,” Lillybeth says. “Javier—who is originally from Hawaii but grew up in Louisiana—was in medical school in Grenada. I was studying medicine in my native Puerto Rico. That summer, we happened to be in Prague, the capital of Czech Republic, for a two-month-long program.”

“My best friend and classmate was there, too. She told me about this guy in her group, and that I’d probably like him.”

As the program neared its end, the two finally got together at a social gathering—and they clicked.

Following Prague, their long-distance romance continued. They relied on social media (and their European phone connections) to stay in touch. And, although they ultimately returned to their respective medical schools, they traveled to each other’s locale when they could. In one instance, it was a lot like speed-dating: they met up in Puerto Rico while Javier was on a six-hour layover for another flight! Things settled a bit after Javier transferred to Lillybeth’s school for his final years of education.

Javier proposed in 2011­—just in time for the couple to start their residencies. He chose St. Luke’s for general surgery; she opted for family medicine at Penn State’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. They married in 2012, and Lillybeth moved closer to the Lehigh Valley and commuted to the Hershey Medical Center. She joined him at St. Luke’s—as a family medicine physician—in 2014.

Although they didn’t originally set out to work in the weight management field, Javier became interested in bariatric surgery during his clinical rotations and chose that as his specialty—leading to a one-year fellowship program at The Cleveland Clinic.

“Most people think it’s just weight-loss surgery, but it also can lessen the effects of, and in some cases cure, metabolic diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol,” he said. “It gives patients who are dealing with these debilitating diseases a second chance at life. It is a very gratifying profession to be a part of.”

“Lillybeth had planned to build her family practice,” he added. “But after I returned from my fellowship studies, she became interested in medical, as opposed to surgical, weight-loss programs.”

Lillybeth picks up the thread. “I’d been exposed to obesity concerns in my family practice,” she said, “and decided to concentrate on that area of medicine. In 2014, St. Luke’s approached me to be a bariatrician, and I accepted. I’ve been working for the past year to attain my CME [continuing medical education] accreditation.”

Javier’s practice involves major surgery, while Lillybeth’s relies on changing dietary, behavioral, and activity patterns. From time to time, though, their patients can overlap. Lillybeth might suggest someone to Javier as a possible candidate for surgery. And if a post-procedure client gains back some weight, Javier can call on Lillybeth to help the person get back on track.

The Birriels’ home life isn’t that much different from those of other young professionals. That is, it gets busy!

“I am blessed to have Lillybeth,” Javier says. “She understands the demands of a surgical practice, and that it might interrupt our schedules and plans.” He adds that, in addition to his usual hours, he is often on-call in case of post-surgery complications and emergencies. “Having an understanding partner really reduces my stress level.”

“It works the same way for me,” Lillybeth says. “Sometimes, I must leave to attend a seminar or meeting. And I was often on-call in my family practice as well,” she says.

The Birriel household is rounded out by their French bulldog Beau, who joined them about four years ago, and their latest addition—two-year-old son Paxton.

And those aspects of their lives aren’t that much different from those of other young professional couples.

“It can be a little difficult because we have no close family in the area,” Lillybeth says, “but we’re fortunate to have each other and good daycare.”

“Good communications, and constantly updated calendars, are also essential,” she says, “so we can be sure everything is covered. You can go out for a couple of hours, and it’s okay to leave your dog alone. You can’t do that with a two-year-old!”

“We have a good work-life balance right now,” she adds, “and we make sure to regularly schedule some ‘adult time.’ For example, we celebrated our wedding anniversary with a week-long trip to Italy—just the two of us!”

It’s been an eventful journey since their first encounter in Prague, and Lillybeth sums up the key to their mutually successful relationship: “We know that both of our careers are important­—and both of us are very supportive of each other.”

Follow @LehighValleyMarketplace on Instagram